Immigration Reform a Must Have for Valley Agriculture

Tricia Stever Blattler, Executive Director, Tulare County Farm Bureau
Tricia Stever Blattler, Executive Director, Tulare County Farm Bureau

With farmers across California reporting chronic problems in hiring enough people to tend and harvest crops, we must take action this year in Congress to reform our broken immigration system. The iron is hot right now, and it is feared that if a comprehensive immigration reform bill is not passed this year, it could take five to seven years to have the political dynamics again that could accomplish meaningful immigration reform. With crop demands shifting, international food demands growing and California’s labor demands stretching nearly 365 days a year, we have many unique needs that must be addressed in a comprehensive immigration reform bill now.

I am encouraged that our elected officials acknowledge the immigration issues that face the nation, and in particular the impacts on farmers and their employees. Immigration reform must be a top priority this year before another election cycle gears up; we cannot afford to wait any longer. Farmers struggle to hire enough domestic employees, so they rely on foreign workers willing to harvest America’s food and fiber crops. Reform of immigration laws should secure our borders and allow immigrants who are contributing to our communities to continue work in farming.

In an online survey conducted by the California Farm Bureau last year, California farmers and ranchers described continuing problems in finding enough people to take on-farm jobs. Nearly two-thirds of the farmers who responded to the survey described significant problems hiring enough employees. California’s future as the nation’s leading source of nutritious fruits and vegetables relies on a steady workforce – and immigration reform is the solution.

As a new harvest season begins, it’s important for Congress to work on a solution sooner rather than later. Our hope is that a reform package will include two key provisions. First, it must allow immigrants working in agriculture who are contributing to our communities to work in farming legally; and second, it must create a visa program for agriculture that allows foreign workers to enter the U.S. legally to work in agriculture.

With overwhelming support, the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, which California Farm Bureau and many other ag organizations are a member to, is part of an agreement to support the recently released Senate Bill 744. This bill in particular establishes a blue card program for skilled workers, which would seek to legalize over 1.3 million undocumented agriculture workers already working here, and allow them a path to citizenship; and also provide an ag worker visa program to provide for future workforce needs.

The Blue Card program basically provides that individuals here without proper documentation must pay all required taxes, have never been convicted of any felony or violent misdemeanor, and pay a $400 fine to be eligible to start the process to citizenship. These individuals must have performed at least five years of agricultural employment for at least 100 work days per year during the eight-year period from the date of enactment; or performed at least three years of agriculture work for at least 150 days per year during a five-year look back period.

For the future flow provision of this bill, an Agriculture Worker Program is the second title of the bill, and would provide a new program for portable, at will employment-based visas, or a contract visa program. The current H-2A program, which is very flawed, would sunset one year after the new visa program is in place. The new Ag Worker Program provides for a cap, which is compounded every year, and cannot exceed over 337,000 visas in any five-year period.

The bill is not perfect, but it is the best opportunity we have to make immigration reform happen this year, and it is a priority for all farm organizations throughout the U.S.

As of late May, there has been significant progress made with bi-partisan bills emerging from both the Senate and House, and we are equally encouraged that several key bills are making their way thru committees on both the House and Senate side. What distinguishes this year’s effort mostly from previous efforts, such as the Immigration Reform Act of 1986, is the importance of a forward flow provision that helps agriculture attract the workforce it needs in the future with a visa program for new agricultural workers. Senate Bill 744 is just one of several key bills moving forward right now, and the really important focus should be on getting both a Senate Bill and a House Bill into a Conference Committee so we can sort out the important details.

Regardless of partisanship issues, we hope that both Republicans and Democrats can find something to support in the legislation that makes its way to conference committee. We know there is no ideal piece of legislation, but we have to start with some shared objectives and find agreement in places we can. S. 744 is that vehicle right now, and agriculture needs to make sure that all of our federal representatives understand how critical this is to our livelihood here in the Valley.

I encourage you to reach out to our congressional representatives and urge their support for moving a bill to a conference committee. It is critical that we make this one of our top priorities in 2013. If not now, we have another very long road ahead and some of our most treasured employees in agriculture will be forced to continue living in the shadows.

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